A visual and narrative documentation of the aftermath of Supertyphoon Yolanda in the Philippines by Mahen Bala, a volunteer with Mercy Malaysia.
At about 7am, the wind started getting stronger. It lasted for about 30 minutes before everything became silent. We looked out of our windows and saw clear blue skies. We were glad that it didn’t turn into something major. The sun was shining bright and it was quiet. Too quiet. Something was wrong, but we didn’t know it yet.
And then it came. The strongest wind we have ever felt. We all ran for safety and didn’t even dare to look outside the window. We could hear the roof tearing away and windows smashing.
We prayed and waited. We had to wait for 4 hours for the winds to stop.
Typhoon Yolanda struck the Visayas, particularly Samar and Leyte on the morning of November 8th, leaving behind a trail of destruction unlike anything the Philippines have seen. At the time of writing, the body count is still rising, with a confirmed count of about 6,000 deaths.
At the time, Mercy Malaysia was already stationed on the nearby island of Bohol, providing help for the victims of the earthquake in October. As soon as the typhoon struck, logisticians quickly made their way to Ormuc and Tacloban, assessing the situation and doing the groundwork in preparation for the first team from Malaysia.
After many hours of delay and a quick transit, I arrived in Cebu on the 17th.
Writing out my experience would take up far too many pages and pixels so I trust the collection of photographs would do a much better job. I thought of extracting excerpts from the journal I wrote during the trip but even that might prove to be a long-winded journey through badly scribbled, random thoughts.
Out of the many thousands of pictures from the mission, here is a collection of just 85 of them, which I still think is a tad too many. The selection is designed to give you an experience of what it was like in Ormuc and Tacloban; the good and the bad.
(Click on the slideshow and view the pictures on the largest screen available. Once you’re done with it, share the experience with your friends.)
Copyright of all images belong to Mahen Bala and Mercy Malaysia
While there were many photographs I did take during the whole 2 weeks, there were also moments when I stopped myself. As a photojournalist, every photograph is a choice. Before lifting the camera and snapping the picture, there is a conscious choice of the story I would like to tell and the purpose that particular photograph would serve in the narrative. Every photograph in the selection above was specifically taken and then chosen for a combination of elements that I believe in. Some photographs were planned days in advance, some were taken with me standing in the same position like an idiot for 30 minutes just so I could get the right person standing at the right position far, far away in the background, and some were taken in a fraction of a second out of the window of a moving vehicle.
Here are some of the pictures I did not take:
11.30pm. Or was it 12.30am I can’t remember. A bunch of us decided to sleep at the hospital that night since the hotel is still in darkness. The room I was in had a small window and still it was like sitting in an oven. Imagine the rooms across the hallway which didn’t have a window. The outpatient clinic, a crude but functional tent with seats and medicines, was set up right next to the Ormuc District Hospital building which remains partially destroyed. With the constant hum of the generator accompanying us, the tent was one of the few places with a decent air circulation. One of the doctors mentioned that he was going to check on some of his patients in the ward. I tagged along.
Every inch of space on the ground floor was taken up by patients, some sleeping with the heads of their relative resting next to them and some barely breathing, dying in solitude. The air was thick, reeking of medicine, blood and pain. We walked into a dark room where a patient was lying on the bed, accompanied by family members shrouded in darkness. Something wasn’t right. I sensed something very familiar. I handed my torchlight to the doctor. We looked at the patients abdomen and waited for movement. Nothing. We pointed the light into his eyes and again, nothing. The doctor looked at me and nodded. We knew what had happened, the question is what do we do next. The doctor walked out to the speak to the nurse at the reception. The young woman who stood next to me looked up. With tears welling up in her eyes she asked “Please tell me he’s still alive.” She repeated the same line over and over, begging me for a response.
The family had been informed of the death at 9pm. Shocked and in denial, they insisted for another doctor. The both of us went back into the isolated ward and the doctor spoke to her gently, explaining to her the dangers of tetanus and the fatal consequences. The woman started crying. “He is my uncle. He took care of me”. At this point, no amount of words would’ve helped. It was a situation I knew too well.
There was one afternoon when I walked into the emergency room of the hospital. Everything was quite normal except there was a boy whose face I could not see. Looking away from the pain on his severed thumb, he hid his face against his mother, who was also crying. The surgeon was suturing the end of the boy’s thumb, about half of it chopped off by a machete the boy was wielding to repair his home. Blood was pouring out of the wound as the surgeon crisscrossed the surgical thread with a plier, a curved needle and a steady pair of hands. Again, a feeling I knew all too well. My finger was on the shutter release of the camera, eager to snap the picture. I knew how many steps I needed to move backwards, the composition of the frame and timed myself according to the rhythm of the surgeon.
But I didn’t move. If the purpose of the photograph was to tell people a story, then I’ve accomplished it with writing about it above. If only with a picture of someone suffering can we begin to sympathize with the victims of the typhoon then there is something very, very wrong within us. From what I’ve written above, you would’ve instantly had an image of what I witnessed. It might look completely different from what I saw but that isn’t the point is it? For a brief moment you stepped into my shoes and looked at the crying mother. You’ve experienced the moment on your own terms and you understood what it meant.
In some cases, a thousand words is worth much more than a photograph.
Whatever discomfort we experienced was microscopically trivial compared to what the Filipinos have had to endure. There were many moments during the trip, while stepping through rubble that was once a home and with the stench of rotting corpses in the air, when I wondered how it would’ve been if such a disaster were to strike Malaysia. I kept imagining the magnificent Twin Towers being stripped off all glass and the mighty barges off Port Klang being washed up to the city centre. I thought of how Malaysians would’ve reacted, running through simulations in my head as if it was a computer game. Except that here in the Visayas, there was no option to load a saved game or to type in cheat codes.
Everything was real. The lumps in the long line of body bags were real people. The pile of rubble that stretched across the coast was once a village.
In all honesty, I had to remind myself of the severity of the situation. Everybody was smiling, even while they were sorting through rubble, looking for anything they could use in rebuilding their lives. Kids were happily running around. The locals would only mention about their ruined homes when asked, and even then with a smile. Imagine that for one moment; a man telling you that his house no longer stands and his family of 6 is now living with their relatives while carving a gentle smile across his face. There was no sob story here. The people of the Visayas will rise. They will rebuild their homes and move on with their lives. They will educate their children in a school with no roof and cook with the dim light of a candle.
Roofless, homeless but not hopeless.